WHAKATANE, New Zealand (AP) — Military specialists on Friday recovered six bodies from a small island near New Zealand days after an eruption claimed at least eight other lives and left behind a toxic and volatile landscape.
A team of eight specialists wearing protective clothing and using breathing apparatuses got to White Island by helicopter and found six of eight bodies thought to remain after the eruption Monday. The bodies were airlifted to a ship near the island off New Zealand’s eastern coast where scientists and other police and military personnel monitored the risky operation.
Scientists have warned that gases on the island are so toxic and corrosive that a single inhalation could be fatal.
Two more bodies could not be found, and police said another operation will be launched later to recover them.
Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said the families cheered when they were told of the successful recovery of six bodies and expressed joy and relief.
“They’ve got their loved ones coming home,” Haumaha said.
The bodies will be taken to Auckland for medical examination and identification. The eight victims that had been left on the island are thought to be six Australians and two New Zealanders, both tour guides.
Conditions were good for the operation, with light winds and calm seas, and the volcano had been “quiet” as the team worked, Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said.
The specialists were all safe, said Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims, who is also national operations commander. He praised “their efforts and the bravery they have shown.”
Scientists warned that volcanic activity has increased in recent days and the island is “highly volatile.”
That has delayed the recovery of the last victims since Monday’s eruption, which occurred as 47 tourists and their guides were exploring the island. In addition to the bodies left on the island, eight other people were killed and dozens were severely burned by the blast of scalding steam and ash.
New Zealand medical staff were working around the clock to treat the injured survivors in hospital burn units, and specialist medical teams are due to arrive from Australia, Britain and the United States.
The enormity of the task was clear when Dr. Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said at a news conference that extra skin has been ordered from American skin banks. Hospital personnel anticipated needing an extra 120 square meters (1,300 square feet) of skin for grafting onto patients, Watson said.
White Island is the tip of a mostly underwater volcano that’s about 50 kilometers (30 miles) off New Zealand’s North Island and has been a popular attraction visited by thousands of tourists each year.
Authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting the island Monday at the time of the eruption. Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday that some injured Australians had been medically evacuated and such flights would continue. Australia previously said up to 10 such patients would be transferred to hospitals in Victoria and New South Wales states for further treatment.
New Zealand’s GeoNet seismic monitoring agency on Thursday lowered White Island’s volcanic alert level to 2, noting there’s been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised to 4. Its alert level since late Monday had been 3 on a scale where 5 signifies a major eruption.
A further eruption in the next day still remains a possibility, the agency said, noting volcanic tremors are rising and steam and mud were being vented regularly.